Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Great Classic Humor

Great Classic Humor, edited by Mark Twain
Publisher: BBC Audio/AudioGo
Date: stories from the 19th century; audiobook published 2009
How did I get this book? borrowed from the library
Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
GoodReads | Publisher

I stumbled across this audiobook at my local library and thought it sounded perfect for the Classics Club (even though it wasn't on my list!). I typically love humor books and was curious to read some selections from the 19th century. Poking around on GoodReads after I brought it home, I was a bit surprised to see so many negative reviews (last time I looked, it had an average rating of 1.71!) -- it seems the consensus is that 19th century humor isn't all that funny. Having now read it myself, I have to both agree and disagree.

I think part of the problem is people tend to find things they can relate to humorous and a lot of the topics these stories cover are not necessarily relate-able to modern audiences. Some certainly are, but definitely not all. And to be perfectly honest, I think humor meant something slightly different back then. Many of these stories showcase irony, cleverness, or mischief -- all within the realm of humor, but not exactly stand-up comedy material.

I will admit that very few of these stories got a true laugh out of me, but Mark Twain's A Restless Night had me in stitches! Anyone who has ever shared a bedroom with another person who falls asleep promptly, while they lie awake with a preoccupied mind, worrying that every toss and turn might wake their companion (this describes me so well!) will most definitely find this particular story extremely funny. For better or worse, this is a perfect example of how the relate-ability of a story can boost a person's opinion of it.

Another of Twain's stories I found particularly amusing was Experience of the McWilliamses with Membranous Croup. This one is a tale of a couple with a sick child, fretting over every little thing they do or do not do and how it will affect the poor dear -- it might not sound funny, but it truly was. The dynamics between the couple as they did and un-did each other's actions in an attempt to control the un-controllable was extremely well done. Whether or not you have children, their indecisiveness is probably something a lot of people can relate to, at least to some extent.

There are five other stories in this collection by Twain, but the rest are by other authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Oliver Wendell Holmes, among others. I must confess, Twain's were my favorites, but a honorable mention definitely goes to Holmes' A Visit to the Asylum for Aged and Decayed Punsters, an amusing tale including quite a bit of word-play. There were multiple narrators used throughout the collection and their performances were very good. Despite the brevity of these stories though, I did find my mind wandering at times. I cannot honestly say they all captured my attention, but they were still an interesting look back in time.

Reading Challenges:
Classics Club
Back to the Classics: a 19th century classic

Classics Club #2

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Under the Wide and Starry Sky

Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan
Series? No
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Date: Jan 21, 2014
How did I get this book? free Advance Reader's Copy from the publisher via Shelf Awareness for my honest review
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars
GoodReads | Author | Publisher

I know I'm not supposed to judge a book by it's cover, but how gorgeous is this one?! I must admit the cover was the first thing that attracted me when I first heard about it, but Stevenson's nationality certainly didn't hurt -- I've said it before and I'll say it again, I have a serious soft spot for all things Scottish!

Nancy Horan's sophomore novel follows the lives of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny van de Grift Osbourne from the time shortly before they met through their courtship, marriage, and the rest of their lives together. While this novel is indeed fiction, it is based on fact and is extremely well researched. Two things I was completely unaware of were how sickly Stevenson was and how far he and Fanny travelled on a quest for climates compatible with his lung condition. Traveling was not exactly easy in those days, but this book (and their lives) truly spanned the globe -- the title could not have been more apropos.

I have very little to criticize about this book, but when Fanny first met Bob Stevenson, I was most definitely rolling my eyes. Logically, I know even famous, well-respected people are likely to have had nicknames among their friends and family, but I couldn't help thinking "Oh God, is this going to be 496 pages of the classic author Robert Louis Stevenson being referred to as Bob?!" The name just didn't sit right for some reason, so I was extremely happy to soon realize that Bob was actually the famous Stevenson's cousin. The author himself simply went by the name Louis. It's completely irrational, I know, but I was very happy once this distinction was made clear!

In a time when divorce was scandalous and marrying for love was not necessarily a priority, it was fascinating to read about this famous couple's relationship. Add in the fact that Louis was significantly younger than Fanny, and you have a truly unconventional pair for the time period. Horan does not shy away from the various difficulties and tragedies in their lives -- they make mistakes, they struggle, and they are flawed (as we all are), but it was heartening to see how strong their bond was through it all. Far too many stories about marriage paint the institution in one of two extremes: either all sunshine and roses or a miserable, awful affair one of the involved parties needs to escape. Fanny's first husband was an unfaithful philanderer and she certainly needed to get away from him, but it was wonderful reading the story of her second chance at love -- real love. She is strong, feisty, courageous, and opinionated -- a real cracker-jack of a character with a lot of depth. At times it seems she kept Louis alive by sheer force of will. She also gave him a great deal of feedback on his writing and while he wasn't always happy about it, taking her critiques into account usually made his work even better.

Despite having three Stevenson classics on my shelves, I have not actually read any of this famous author's books. Having read this fictional account of his life, I am only more intrigued. I now want to read the three I already own (Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde) and others I did not even know existed previously! Did you know Stevenson also wrote a book of poems for children, travel essays, short stories, and plays? For a man so ill who only lived into his forties, it's truly amazing to realize the extent of his writings.

If you have any interest in Robert Louis Stevenson's life or work, I would certainly recommend this book. It's also a good choice for fans of historical fiction in general and most definitely for fans of fictionalized accounts of famous figures.

Explore further with some fun links:
Excerpt & Discussion Questions on Nancy Horan's site
Interview with the author in the Shelf Awareness for Readers newsletter
Reviews from Shelf Awareness for Readers & So Obsessed With (one of my favorite blogs!)

Reading Challenges:
Review Pile
Read Scotland
Historical Fiction
New Author
Chunkster: 496 pages
Lucky No. 14: Cover Lust

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Because Cookbooks Rule, I Need Cookbook Rules :)

Sorry for the silly play on words, but I couldn't resist! When I wrote my previous Golden Rule of Book-Buying post, the one genre it really did not cover was cookbooks since they are not books I typically sit down and read cover to cover. I do enjoy reading them, but it's a different type of experience. I enjoy good food writing, but for me a cookbook is first and foremost a guide to help me prepare delicious food -- gorgeous photography or artwork never hurt, but the recipes need to be appealing. I don't write much about them here (though I'd like to read more food-related books this year), but suffice it to say I have plenty. I won't promise to buy no new cookbooks because there is almost no chance I would actually hold myself to such a declaration.

Since cookbooks don't add to my reading pile per se and are inherently useful, I think giving myself a yearly limit for this particular category is the best way to go. This probably sounds like a high limit to most people, but I've decided to set my absolute maximum at 10 for the year. I am afraid to tally up how many cookbooks I purchased in 2013, but I can guarantee the number is a lot higher than 10. (House-stress-induced-cookbook-buying is a real thing, just saying.) Even when I didn't have much time to cook, it was still nice to dream of all the delicious things I could make in my new kitchen. A bit crazy maybe, but nice nonetheless.

I will also be making a more conscious effort to sift though the cookbooks I have and donate, give away, trade-in, or sell the ones I am no longer interested in. As I've mentioned before, with so many of our house projects finally finished, I've re-committed to cooking and baking more regularly and trying more new recipes from all these fabulous books with the help of the awesome website I work for, Eat Your Books. Of course that makes me biased, but if anyone else is a cookbook nut like me, it really is worth checking out. (And in the interest of full disclosure, I was a paying member of the site long before I was hired, so I hope that counts for something when you consider my recommendation.) Want to take a peek at my cookbook shelves? I also added a widget linking to my collection on my sidebar (and for the record, the total number includes ebooks & magazines -- I don't actually have 321 physical cookbooks on my shelves...yet. Our house is essentially turning into a library. Not a bad thing, right?)

This now officially concludes all New Year/goal/resolution related posts -- now on to a year full of good reading, good books, and good food!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

How To Be a Good Wife

How To Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman
Series? No
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Date: Oct 15, 2013
How did I get this book? free Advance Reader's Copy from the publisher via Shelf Awareness for my honest review
My Rating: 2 of 5 stars
GoodReads | Author | Publisher

I have been avoiding writing this review because it's been hard to put my disappointment into words. I've read such high praise for this debut and the premise seemed so promising. I love literary suspense and I normally find unreliable narrators fascinating. I am not the kind of person who needs every single thing tied up with a little bow at the end of a story, but for the love of God, this one didn't tie up much of anything! I closed the book and felt like none of my questions were answered. None! And while I understand why the voice of the narrator in the beginning of the book was so simplistic and child-like given the fact she was medicated at the time, it was really starting to drive me crazy. I almost DNF'ed this one, but I felt compelled to read on to see how things would turn out -- making it even more of a disappointment in the end. The writing is good and the characters are interesting, but I can't honestly say I recommend this book.

Reading Challenges:
Review Pile

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Books Made Into Movies: A Love-Hate Relationship

I joined the Book-to-Movie challenge this year because I really do love books that have been made into movies -- it's the movie end that (usually) leaves me disappointed. I get so excited, but the resulting films rarely live up to expectations. I've always wondered HOW so many movies can manage to butcher the books they share a title with. Surely an excellent book should make an excellent movie -- it's all there, they just have to bring it to life on the screen, right?

Apparently not.

I just read an article in the Guardian about the movie adaptation of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. I have not read this particular book, but as a reader, I found the article very disheartening. The author herself felt the story needed to be changed for the movie, completely scrapped the ending, and wrote a new one. Um, WHAT?! Did I read that correctly? Was I hallucinating? I really wish I was, but on the other hand I feel like I've finally gotten some insight into why I am so frequently disappointed by movie adaptations.

It seems what filmmakers (and general audiences) feel makes a *good movie* is sometimes independent of the original source material. As a reader, I have a movie playing in my head when I read a book. As a reader, I can imagine how a book would come to life on the screen. As a reader, I never think anything would need to be changed to make a great book into a *good movie.* I always hope that filmmakers will work their magic and simply express the author's vision in a different medium. As it turns out, I am a hopelessly naive bookworm when it comes to such things.

When I read in the article that the director of Gone Girl felt he "held too close to the source material" for his previous adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo citing that as a reason for low box office performance, I nearly fell out of my chair. Admittedly, I haven't read that book (or seen the movie) either, but holding close to the original source material is all I ever want in a movie adaptation, so to hear such a sentiment expressed damn near broke my heart. HOW can keeping too close to a story already loved by many make a movie worse? As a reader, that simply does not make any sense to me. I have never gone to the movies and walked out saying, "You know, it would have been so much better if they changed more stuff from how it was in the book." I mean, that's just crazy, right?

So I guess it is time to accept once and for all that movies made from books are not really for the avid book fans. Filmmakers (understandably) see them as an art-form all their own. I think it is fair to say that oftentimes they look at a book and see what it could be rather than what it already is, at least to some extent. That really does make me sad, but perhaps I can finally learn to manage my expectations. Perhaps I can just be pleasantly surprised when an adaptation does keep very closely to the story instead of setting myself up for failure every time I buy a movie ticket.

How do you feel about movies based on books? Does it bother you when things have been changed from the original story?

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Bellman & Black

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield
Series? No
Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Date: November 5, 2013
How did I get this book? free Advance Reader's Copy from the publisher via Shelf Awareness/Atria Galley Alley for my honest review
My Rating: 3 of 5 stars
GoodReads | Author | Publisher

I was so excited to read this book because I absolutely adored Ms. Setterfield's debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale. This was by no means a bad book, but I can't help but feel it pales a little in comparison. It took me a long time to read despite its short number of pages (328) and after a beginning that really grabbed me, I felt like it started to drag a bit. Ironically, I think it would actually be a good book to re-read knowing how everything turns out, but I probably won't get to that any time soon! Before you get the idea that this is a completely negative review though, let me move onto the many good things about this novel. I love the historical setting and the gothic tone. The writing itself is excellent and I loved the character of William Bellman. Watching as he changed from a happy, successful, ambitious young man into a broken older one obsessed with growing his business in order to ward off that which haunts him was both sad and fascinating to witness.

This book really made me think about the roles work, money, ambition, mistakes, regret, and loss play in a someone's life and how those things can change a person. As I was reading this book, I was also re-reading Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and I couldn't help but draw some comparisons to the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. While Bellman's actions are at first driven by a desire to save his daughter and salvage what little is left of his family, he becomes so obsessed with his work and increasing his profits that he misses out on so many other aspects of life. He is not motivated by greed, but rather truly believes he is doing what he must to uphold his end of a "deal with the devil," so to speak. In the end, he barely even sees the daughter he so desperately wanted to save and has no life outside of his work.

So would I recommend this book? Yes and no. I do not recommend that you pick it up for the sole reason that it is written by the same author as The Thirteenth Tale. Be aware of how different this story is and know what you are getting into. As far as ghost stories go, this one is rather subtle. If you are looking for something very scary or suspenseful, this is probably not the book for you. But if you have any interest in exploring some of the themes I've mentioned, it is definitely worth a read.

Reading Challenges:
Review Pile

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday #21: (Mostly) Bookish Goals for 2014

Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

I haven't done a Top Ten Tuesday in a very long time, but this week's topic seemed like a good way to summarize all the things I've begun working on in the new year.

1. Stick to my Golden Rule of Book Buying

2. Get no more than 10 new cookbooks (these don't count in #1 because I don't *read* them -- more on this goal later)

3. Diversify my reading selections with the guidance of the (many) challenges I've joined.

4. Read more books for the Classics Club

5. Start reading some of the anthologies and collections on my Classics Club list. I am normally a one book at a time kind of girl, but I have some hefty (and not so hefty) collections of short stories, poetry, fairy tales, etc. that do not necessarily need to be read cover to cover before moving onto another book. So I'd like to start with one and dip in and out until the collection is complete. I think I'm going to start with Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary which I've been wanting to read more of ever since studying an excerpt for Ms. Sweeney's English class. After that, I have plenty of others to choose from!

6. Work on my time management and make time for reading every day. This does not mean I HAVE to read everyday -- if I'm between books and can't decide what to start next or I just don't feel like it, that's fine. What I want to avoid is what happened in 2013 where I would get drawn into a book, but then it could take me weeks to finish it simply because I could not find the time regardless of how much I wanted to read.

7. Go to bed earlier and get more sleep. I'm super lucky to work from home and make my own schedule, but with so much going on last year, I got in the bad habit of starting my work day later and then staying up on the computer until 2AM. So I've been shifting my schedule earlier and my goal is to keep it that way. Related to #6, I've been making time to read before bed which usually helps me fall asleep, and having a routine is really helpful when trying to establish new habits and patterns.

8. Try at least 50 new recipes. If I get back in the habit of cooking and baking more, I should easily surpass this goal. In the past, I've made 4 new recipes in one day (granted that was for a party, but still one new recipe a week is really a piece of cake.)

9. Choose one cookbook from my collection at a time and make several recipes from it. There are so many books I've browsed with my husband (usually right after I've bought them) asking him which things he'd be willing to try, and yet we so often fall back into the trap of tried-and-true. Not this year! Nick can be really picky, but he's gotten more adventurous with food lately, so I'm going to seize that opportunity.

10. No purchasing packaged sweets (cookies, ice cream, etc.). I have a well stocked pantry and enough recipes to last a lifetime so this one should be easy. I used to do this without even thinking about it because I baked and tried new recipes all the time when we lived in our apartment. But a year of house projects left me short on time and snatching packaged goodies off the shelves when grocery shopping. Homemade tastes so much better anyway, so this goal should be lots of fun. The one treat I'll still allow is real-deal 70%+ dark chocolate because I can't make that myself and dark chocolate has like antioxidants and stuff in it, right? As a side note, when I mentioned this resolution to my husband, he said he was all for it, but "Now I'll have to make it my resolution to not gain 100 pounds because of your resolution." The boy does love my baking :)

Here's to a productive and happy 2014! Good luck with your goals, whatever they may be :)

Friday, January 3, 2014

My (New) Golden Rule of Book-Buying

So I've taken a good look at my collection and realized that if I keep things up as I have been, I will never read all the books in my house if I don't commit to a change. When I first started thinking about this, I kept coming up with complicated rules and limits for myself, but you know what they say about going on a diet -- that if you deprive yourself completely or make things too complicated you will never stick with it? I'm going with that same philosophy here and have instead created a Golden Rule of Book-Buying for myself:
I can buy any books I wish, but only if I am actually ready to read them. 
That's it. Simple, right? This is a completely logical and sensible rule-of-thumb and is probably the way most rational people operate when it comes to buying books in the first place -- but clearly I haven't been rational when it comes to books in quite a while! If I can follow just this one rule, I think I will eventually be able to read my way through my collection. I can still add to my "library," but at a much more reasonable pace -- a pace that will also allow me to make time for all the other wonderful books I already have.

Already fuller than last time.
There's still a bit of room, but not much.

If I am truly honest with myself, I know I'm going to want to bend my own rule when it comes to my favorite used book stores. I'm OK with that, BUT only if I'm also bringing in books for trade, thus lightening my shelves a bit. I won't go overboard, but if I spot a few I know I want to read and can get them with trade credit, it seems reasonable to do so even if I'm not quite ready to read them. I do want to continue supporting these smaller local stores so I'd rather most purchases I do make be from one of them. And going forward, if I am looking to buy a specific book (stock is understandably hit-or-miss at a used store), my plan to avoid the online trap of ordering extra to get free shipping is to buy it from my local indie store. They usually have a really good selection in stock and can order just about anything else without a shipping fee. It's a win-win, if you ask me.

If I really think about it, it's truly ridiculous I have to make a conscious effort to implement this new Golden Rule of mine. You are free to mock me if you wish, but being fellow book-loving souls, I'm hoping you will understand this particular brand of craziness. I don't buy fancy purses. I don't buy clothes or shoes in excess. I very rarely buy movies or video games (those are mostly the hubby's domain, minus the dance games because they are fun and exercise -- you can bet I will not be exercising outside my house anytime soon as single digit temps have become the norm -- I woke up to -4°F this morning!). I still have a dumb-phone because I don't want to pay for a data plan. The only other splurge I am considering is a tablet to read digital magazines and the occasional ebook I can't get in print (you knew there would be a reading tie-in there right?). I've obviously been buying things for the house because well, if you don't want the whole neighborhood to see you naked, it's probably a good idea to put up curtains. Just sayin'. Books are (obviously) my thing, but it's time to get a bit more realistic. Wish me luck!

It's awful cold out there, but so beautiful!
Love this view of our backyard.